First Love. Like a parental relationship, it can haunt the rest of our lives. There is nothing so sweet as loving and/or being loved - deeply appreciating and/or appreciating another perhaps for the first time, but certainly for the first time with someone who does not "have" to love you - a parent, a sibling - but someone who chooses to do so - not because you're their's but because they want you to be their own. Jeffrey Eugenides' Novel is about such a love - but with the advantage of hindsight - and, I think, as an attempt, and I hope a satisfying one, to put that first love to bed. It seemed helpful to me, as a reader, in any case.
The novel focuses on a triangle, but really a conga line, of lovers - all students at Brown in the late seventies and early 80s. Leonard is the brilliant but unstable bipolar child of absent parents who evokes sympathy and care from a string of women but ultimately from Madeleine. Maddy is a good girl from a solid home who is smart but not brilliant - a romantic who loves Austen, Eliot and James and others who write in the marriage plot genre - a genre that requires society to be structured in a rigid, traditional manner and for women to be in subservient, chattel based roles where their marriages will define them. Maddy dabbles in semiotics and through that rediscovers her favorite authors from a feminist perspective. Mitchell, the author's alter ego, a child of Greek immigrants from Detroit, deeply interested in religion and spirituality, is a person who has trouble hearing God's voice - and sparking Maddy's interest. He pines for her - she knows and enjoys him, but he is not wild and unpredictable the way that Leonard is.
The tale is told, alternately, in the three voices of each of the main characters in overlapping chronology, so that, Rashomon fashion, many events are told from two or three perspectives. More broadly, this book gets, pitch perfect, the stumbling, inchoate voices of the cohort that makes up the tail end of the boomer generation. The cohort that watched the 60s from the sidelines - as younger siblings - or saw the events on TV. The cohort that romanticized the idealism of free love, racial equality, and power to the people without living through the grit and grime of the lived reality of fighting for those ideals, including against the internal enemies. This cohort inherited, relatively unscathed, the haven of liberal arts colleges and Universities as a place to explore who they were in relation to each other without the mores and tropes of the 50s, and without some of the authority that the University wielded before the 60s but also without a clear new vision of how to navigate the new sexual and relational landscape. From Madeleine's perspective: "Madeleine...realized that her [older] sister's iconoclasm and liberationist commitments had just been part of a trend. Alwyn had done things she had done and voiced the political opinions she'd voiced because all her friends were acting and talking the same way. You were supposed to feel bad about missing the sixties, but Madeleine didn't. She felt as if she'd been spared a lot of nonsense, that her generation, while inheriting much that was good from that decade, had a healthy distance from it as well, saving them from the whiplash that resulted from being a Maoist one minute and a suburban mother, in Beverly, Massachusetts, the next."
So this coming of age novel is of a particular age - the post Aquarian age - when the Graduate's message - don't marry him - had been delivered - but the new marriage, the new society with its new norms was not yet developed. This group, this generation, would have to figure out its own marriage plot, its own way of engaging in the dance, and they would have to do that while the rules of the dance were evolving around them. This generation could fashion their own identity, but they would have to do that, seemingly, out of whole cloth.
The role of parents in this novel, then, is interesting, if for no other reason than that the children in this novel will become the helicopter parents of the present generation. The parents in this novel have provided and continue to provide a base - solid or shaky - but they are - even when present - peripheral players. They do not guide so much as turn a blind eye or, when they look, offer advice or attempts at control that are completely out of step with what the children need. Leonard's parents fail to provide him with adequate nourishment - his mother all but abandoning he and his sister after his father runs off with another woman to England. They show up for graduations and weddings but are not engaged. Madeleine's parents, much more involved, warn her to get a prenup, fly to her aid when she is stranded, and ultimately board all three of the protagonists (two at a time) when they are not capable of taking care of themselves. About Mitchell's parents we know very little. Traditional lines of initiation and passing on of wisdom have been severed, and the sense that there is wisdom to be had is in question.
Mitchell seeks wisdom in books and in mysticism. He reads Salinger's Franny and Zooey and takes up the Jesus prayer as Franny did. He goes to India to volunteer for Mother Theresa and to get the lay of the land. And throughout this, almost against his will, he is held in the orbit of Madeleine. She is his ideal. The basis for this is pretty slender: there is something about her handwriting - small and cramped - that reveals her inner life to be more complicated than her external, conventional demeanor would lead him to believe. He constructs her, then, not based on who she is but on who he needs her to be - she is his Beatrice, his imagined spiritual guide - not an actual, living breathing partner.
Madeleine, for her part, cannot imagine the interiority of Mitchell, and finds his exterior to be plain and therefore of little interest. Mitchell, himself, is searching for his own interior, imagining it in Madeleine, and, despite not finding it, is able to have the fortitude to resolve his relationship with Madeleine. My guess is that this is revisionist history. I think that Eugenides, an incredibly successful author - he won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex (a much more ambitious, sweeping book) may have returned later in life to the unrequited love - and achieved resolution. And, after having struggled with Madeleine throughout his life, I think he may finally have been able to own - not her - not the old marriage plot chattel ending - but the part of himself that he imagined she could provide him.
This novel then, as humble as it is when compared to the complex, ambitiousness that Middlesex provided, speaks to something very true and satisfying. It is about the ability of the post-60s generation to own themselves; to become that which they had hoped they could be, even though they were a lost generation, stripped of direction by the questioning that the 60s provided, deluded into romanticism but without a roadmap of how to get from here to there, Eugenides maintains (and perhaps proves?) that there is hope of integrating a cogent sense of one's self. Do we need to earn a Pulitzer to do it? God, I hope not.
I think that Eugenides has been able to come to a psychological resolve about this period of his life as a result of writing about it. Part of the telling of this tale that is off putting is that the characters have, what is to me, an unrealistic level of self awareness. They are cognizant of their intentions and of the likely impact of their actions that is well beyond their years. I believe this to be an anachronism borne of the author's having imagined these events - having let them ripen and become real in his belly over time. And as that happens, he knows the characters better than they could have known themselves - and he writes from the perspective of who they are beyond what they could reasonably have been conscious of being- he writes from the perspective of the integrated, whole person that they are working to become rather than the fragmented, developing person that they are at the moment that is being described. The maturation that has taken place is the processing, the coming of age, that ripening, of the author, and it is a maturation that each of us can engage in as we ruminate about the past.
Perhaps the most poignant example of this ripening, of this imagining, is the explicit sexual interactions between Leonard and Madeleine - wonderful, glorious, mania fired interactions that Mitchell (Eugenides) will never be able to compete with. Eugenides engages in this - what appears like a masochistic exercise - as part, I believe, of the process of knowing the enemy. Knowing that he cannot provide his lover what she wants and fears, at the time of the interaction nor now, in the present - he will never be the lover his competitor was, but also of knowing, perhaps through allowing himself to imagine it in all of its detail, that this is not what determines that he is not Madeleine's lover. What will allow Mitchell to become who he is is the process of hearing the voice within him - the spiritual voice he has been pursuing. This voice, imagined in the book as coming at the perfect moment in the relationship with Madeleine, but perhaps coming later in life, allows the marriage plot to have a new twist- one that Austen didn't have available - that the eligible young person might move towards becoming who they are not through a marital relationship alone - but along a variety of paths with a variety of people - the right people at the right moments - and not with a person who is forced to fit because of the urgency of the need of the lover.
My friend Dan, who spent the first year of his second marriage writing a book about the end of his first marriage, and my own experience, of dreaming about my first love and talking about that with my current lover, are both examples of being haunted by former loves. It has taken both Dan and I, and I believe Eugenides, considerable work to put these earlier lovers to bed. And, at least for me, she sleeps uneasily - she can re-emerge, particularly during moments when I am questioning myself and longing for something that I cannot provide at the moment.
This book was embarrassing to read. It aptly describes how awkward and clumsy I felt during the time he is describing. For all the erudition, for all the reading, for all the knowledge of love and self actualization that the world has produced, it remains for each age, and each member of each age, to grope through what is new - both to the individual but also to the species - how to navigate this particular coming of age. If we accomplish that in a lifetime, as Eugenides appears to have done, or even make significant progress on that process, I think we should count it a life well lived.
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